Moonlit movies – The show goes on for drive-in theaters

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Air mattress, check. Sheets, check. Blankets, check. Pillows, check.

Nick Allen and Carson Ashton, both from Yellville, lounge in the back of Allen’s truck on an air mattress before the start of the feature at the Kenda Drive-In Theatre in Marshall. photo Karen Segrave

Watching Nick Allen and Carson Ashton of Yellville set up their snug, yet sophisticated, outdoor space as the

July sun sets in a sky hazy with Saharan Desert dust drift, one would guess they were camping for two weeks.

Instead, they’re just watching two movies at Marshall’s Kenda Drive-In Theatre.

Not even old enough to have been born when tonight’s first film, Field of Dreams, was released — how did Allen get to be such a drive-in movie master?

“We watched TikTok, and this is what they were doing,” he says, referencing the popular video-sharing app while continuing to transform his pickup bed into a bona fide bed. He has just gone “boomer” in a very “zoomer” way — using the most modern of technology to research a retro entertainment form.

Then again, are drive-ins truly retro?

While much attention is being given to a pandemic-prompted revival of drive-in theaters — which offer safe alfresco amusement in these virus-dreading, space-craving, social-distancing times — owners of long-standing Arkansas drive-ins will tell you they never went away. They have been here and flourishing the entire time. And they have kept up with the times. All have upgraded to digital projection and play first-run movies (more on that momentarily).

The state’s three full-fledged functioning drive-in theaters — the aforementioned Kenda, Fayetteville’s 112 Drive-In Theatre and Mountain View’s Stone Drive-In Theatre — are family-owned legacies that have endured in their original locations for decades; the youngest is 40 years old.

Show business

For these seasoned theaters, COVID-19, which temporarily shut down Hollywood and delayed the release of much-anticipated motion pictures like Disney’s Mulan and Warner Bros.’ Tenet, has caused more of a standstill or a slowdown than a swell.

Holly Jones, co-owner of the Stone Drive-In says, “Honestly, we’d normally run new movies and be pretty full on the weekends. And now we’re having to choose old movies to run. Realistically, (business) is OK, but … it’s definitely not more than we would normally do, and some weekends, it’s less.”

Kenda Dearing, owner of the Kenda Drive-In, says, “Usually in the summer, there are two to three movies that

At left, Brooke Granger and Cooper visits with Cassie Lynch and Woody before the start of the movie at the Kenda Drive-In Theatre.. photo Karen Segrave

are your summer blockbusters; those are going to do you huge business and big crowds, and those aren’t happening this year. So instead, we’ve just got steady, even numbers each week.”

But what Dearing has noticed are “my newbies,” estimating first-timers make up about 70 percent of current business.

“There’s definitely a surge of people who have not been before,” Dearing says. “I think part of it is because people are looking for something to do outside. I think part of it is there is a lot of publicity on drive-ins, and people didn’t know we even existed.

“That is a hopeful thing for us; we’re hoping that some of these new ones will become regular customers and will continue to see us post-COVID.”

New drive-in customers will discover a whole new movie-watching world. It’s one that is enhanced by brilliant waxing gibbous moons, distant lightning flashes and creatures’ chirps and croaks — nature’s enchanting visual and sound effects. (Or were those noises coming from Disney’s live-action The Jungle Book on screen? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.)

About the appeal of drive-ins, Janie Dunn-Rankin, a family owner of the 112 Drive-In, says, “I think nostalgia could be part of it.”

And perhaps this is why the 112’s customers have responded to this season’s classic films.

“Let me tell you, our patrons love the retro titles,” Dunn-Rankin says. “We are only normally open Thursday to Sunday. We held Grease and Footloose over for Monday night because we sold out Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.”

Ah, Grease, the ultimate drive-in movie, in which Sandy throws back Danny’s “piece of tin” class ring, slams the door of his “sin wagon” and stomps off, leaving him “stranded at the drive-in, branded a fool.”

Plot twist

While there are fewer drive-ins than back in the day, some 300 still exist in the United States, according to State Farm-sponsored trivia on the screen before shows at the 112 and the Stone.

And now the COVID-19 pandemic has led to the creation of more socially-distant “pop-up” drive-ins.

Walmart recently announced it will partner with the Tribeca Drive-In team to convert 160 store parking lots into family-friendly drive-in movie theaters from this month until October.

A central Arkansas promoter started North Little Rock Drive In Movies (fb.com/groups/NLRDriveInMovies), 7318 Windsong Drive, North Little Rock; movies are scheduled weekends through August.

Popular music acts have turned to drive-ins as makeshift concert halls. Christian artists like Toby Mac and Casting Crowns have embarked on special drive-in summer tours with stops in Arkansas. Singer Garth Brooks performed a July concert event that was shown exclusively at drive-ins.

Whether these temporary drive-in endeavors will go the distance remains to be seen. But expect the established theaters to live on.

Another piece of State Farm drive-in trivia: “When America’s first drive-in theater opened in Camden, New Jersey, in 1933, admission was 25 cents per person.”

Maybe a mere quarter won’t get you too far at a drive-in these days, but for a mere 50 cents at the 112, one can purchase a puckery frozen pickle juice pop — or as the menu calls it — a “Pickle Sickle.”

Still, drive-ins can be an affordable alternative to cinemas. Tickets range from free to $6 for children and from

A patron visits the concessions stand at Mountain View’s Stone Drive-In Theatre. photo Brian Cia

$5-$10 for adults (now, don’t be trying to hide friends in the trunk!) — and the price includes double features at the Kenda and 112. While the drive-ins would love for you to support their moderately priced concessions stands, all of which have undergone coronavirus-conscious modifications, all theaters allow outside food and drink.

Bringing your own popcorn, soft drinks and candy can be a Lifesaver.

That is the case for Rachel Hawley of Prairie Grove, who has come out to see The Jungle Book at the 112 —

Rachel Hawley is joined by her daughter, Kole; Kole’s friend, Stella Cook; and Rachel’s mother, Sarah, for a night at Fayetteville’s 112 Drive-In Theatre.

where she used to come as a child. She is joined by her mother, Sarah; daughter, Kole; and Kole’s friend, Stella Cook. They’re seated around a feast: Chips. Dip. Crackers. Microwave popcorn. Lucky Charms marshmallows. And, for balance, cantaloupe.

“You can bring a bunch of snacks and stuff!” is what 10-year-old Kole says with no hesitation when asked about the best part of drive-in movies.

And then there’s the volume control. Kole says, “Since we have the radio, we can turn it how loud we want.” Drive-ins use FM transmitters, and patrons can tune in through their car or personal stereos.

Stella, 10, likes the sights. “It’s very pretty at night,” she says.

Kole adds, “And it’s cozy! We can bring our own blankets.”

Yes, blankets. Even the sweatiest of summer days can be followed by blissful breezes after sundown. Temperatures during recent visits to the theaters were nothing short of dreamy.

Sarah enjoys the show happening right on the 112’s gravel lot as others get parked and situated: “We’ve been having fun watching other people, haven’t we?” she asks her movie mates.

Because, at drive-ins, people aren’t forced to sit still and stoic in stadium seats. They are certainly welcome to remain in their vehicles or lawn chairs, but pup walking (where permitted) and other respectful roaming is allowed.

That’s one of the reasons that Amanda Richardson of Mountain View — joined by her husband, Brant; daughter,

Rebecka, Brant, Tank and Amanda Richardson, with pups Cash and Twitty, are regulars at the Stone Drive-In Theatre.

Rebecka; son, Tank; and miniature dachshunds, Cash and Twitty — says her family comes to the Stone Drive-In almost weekly during the season.

“We can move around and actually have activities,” she says prior to a showing of John Wayne’s 1963 western comedy, McLintock! “We’ve picnicked out here before shows. The kids can actually run around with their friends. The dogs can come too.”

And, Brant, who as a child used to visit the same drive-in with his family, is continuing a tradition with his children, who one day might visit with their children.

Over at the Fayetteville 112, Gary Ehlers of Ozark, Missouri, might be starting a new tradition. He drove his family — wife, Sonja, and daughters, Mia and Jillian — two hours to the theater, the closest drive-in to them, on Friday of the July Fourth weekend. They made the trip just for the drive-in (well, and maybe to stay overnight and visit Rogers’ new Topgolf venue the next day, too).

“There’s nothing like a drive-in on the Fourth of July,” Ehlers says, as his family enjoys nachos in the pickup. “How Americana is that, right?”

Says Jones, a third-generation owner of the Stone who grew up at the theater, “The movie is your excuse to go, but it’s more of a relaxing social event than anything.”

She elaborates, “I don’t think they pay attention to the movie much. I’m sure some do. But a lot of people just really like being out with the stars in the evening. There’s something kind of magical about it.”

Dearing, who also grew up at her family’s theater, agrees: “It’s about something more than just the movie.”

She continues, “When you go to a theater, you sit down, and it’s the movie  — you’re watching the movie, and that’s what you’re there for. Here, it’s grandparents with grandkids; it’s families together; it’s a couple on their first date; it’s a couple coming back [to celebrate]their anniversary. It’s a little bit more than just the movie; it’s the experience and … the interaction. That’s what we’re missing so much in this techno world, and you get that here. It’s so great on a summer night. There are families everywhere.

“That’s why I think drive-ins have withstood the test of time.”

Drive-in how-to’s

  • Select which Arkansas drive-in you’d like to visit. Note the driving distance, and note movie times (“dark” or 9 p.m. — and there could be a second movie after).
  • Make lodging arrangements if necessary. Driving dark, winding roads when exhausted is not advised. After that 11 p.m. showing of Friday Night Lights concludes, you might need to go night-night.
  • Plan to arrive early, soon after the gates open. You’ll have your pick of spots, and you won’t risk being turned away from a sell-out.
  • Pack up the vehicle with folding chairs, a cooler, drinks, snacks, toys, blankets and kids. And perhaps waterproof ponchos; all drive-in movies are rain or shine.
  • Bring a portable radio — unless you wish to use the car stereo and risk draining the vehicle’s battery. Speaking of batteries, check that the portable radio has fresh ones.
  • Stop at the ATM. Cards are not accepted at most drive-ins.
  • Have and apply ample bug spray. Otherwise, you might feel like you’re starring in The Mosquito Coast.

Drive-ins at a glance

Kenda Drive-In Theatre  U.S. 65, Marshall, 870-448-5400, kendadrivein.com

 

History: The theater was opened in 1966 by Kenda Dearing’s father and named for his baby girl. Her grandparents had owned a traditional movie theater that her father took over. And, Dearing says, “It was always my dad’s dream to build a drive-in. … So he bought some land and decided to build a drive-in and knew absolutely nothing, I don’t think, about building one. But he had some good friends in town that happened to be great electrical contractors. … Between them all, they managed to build something that has sustained for a long time. Obviously, we’re doing something right.”

Open: Friday-Sunday year-round (as well as Mondays and some Tuesdays in summer). Box office opens at 7:30 p.m.; first movie starts at 9 p.m.

Admission: Cash or check only. Double-feature tickets are $6 for ages 12 and older; $2 for ages 6-11; and free for younger children.

Sound: Car radio or portable radio. As a COVID-19 precaution, the theater was not lending out its speakers at press time.

Concessions: The theater not only sells food before and during movies, it does lunch service. Order online and get a text when food — perhaps a pulled pork sandwich or Frito pie — is ready, or order at the counter. (Concessions lobby is currently closed.)

Good to know: Leashed pets welcome. The venue has hosted everything from church services and senior bingo to weddings and graduations.

112 Drive-In Theatre  3552 Arkansas 112 N., Fayetteville, 479-442-4542, 112driveintheatre.com

History: “It’s a family-owned business,” says family owner Janie Dunn-Rankin. “My grandfather started in the movie business in 1927 with an indoor theater in Missouri and added to that. He opened the first drive-in in Northwest Arkansas in 1950. … The 112 was built in 1980. We’re celebrating 40 years of family fun!”

Open: Thursday through Sunday nights from March or April until September or October. (But, due to the pandemic, the theater opened in late May; a closing time has not been decided.) Gates open at 7:15 p.m.; first movie begins at 9 p.m.

Admission: Cash or credit/debit cards. Double-feature tickets are $10 for ages 13 and older; $5 for ages 6-12; free for younger children.

Sound: Car radio or portable radio. The theater also rents radios.

Concessions: While the concessions lobby is currently closed, outdoor tents, where patrons can order and pick up their food, have been set up — complete with velvet ropes. Drive-in delights include everything from fries to funnel cakes.

Good to know: Due to COVID-19, the playground has been closed, and no pets are allowed at this time.

Stone Drive-In Theatre n808 Theatre Lane, Mountain View, 870-269-3227, stonedrivein.net

History: Holly Jones’ grandfather built the theater in 1964, and it opened in 1965. Her father took over in the ’70s until he passed away in January. She owns the business with her sister and brother.

Open: Friday through Sunday nights from March to October. (But, due to the pandemic, the theater opened in late May; a closing time has not been decided.) One movie per night with showtime at dark or 9 p.m.

Admission: Tickets — $5 for ages 12 and older; $3 for ages 4-11; free for younger children — can be purchased with cash at the door or in advance online.

Sound: Car radio or portable radio.

Concessions: “Due to current renovations, we’re serving gourmet popcorn, drinks, chips, candy bars, and ice cream,” the Stone’s website says.

Good to know: Leashed pets allowed. The theater is undergoing renovations to its concession and restroom facilities.

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